Biglaw, Job Searches, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

Are You A Hunter Or A Farmer?

Keith Lee

One of the first realities that new lawyers come to confront as they graduate law school — whether it be on their own or within a firm — is that clients are the life blood of practice. No clients, no practice.

This often comes as a surprise to new lawyers. Despite the the glut of lawyers, declining legal industry, and overall economic malaise, many new lawyers still think that clients will magically appear once they have received their J.D. and passed the bar. A few months into practice, they are quickly dissuaded of this notion.

Instead, they learn that clients must be developed or found.

David Maister, in his classic book Managing the Professional Firm (affiliate link), makes an observation that most professional firms fall into two categories: Farmers and Hunters.

Farmers:

[L]ike [farm] communities, these firms deliberate about what crops to sow, arrive at a (gutsy) decision, and then “bet the farm” on that crop. [They are] focused on the services they bring to market, and build their success by investing heavily in the chosen areas. They succeed through focus, muscle, and concentrated efforts in a few hand-picked areas.

Hunters:

Hunter firms attempt to maximize the entrepreneurialism of their members, by creating the maximum degree of individual autonomy. Rather than being “constrained” by firm wide choices on what markets to serve and which services to offer, Hunter firms encourage each individual (and each small group) to respond and adapt to the local market.

Key Traits

Maister identified what he thought to be the basic concepts of each type of firm:

Hunters Farmers
Central Principle Individual (small group) entrepreneurialism Firmwide collaboration
Key Strengths Diversity, flexibility Focused Strategy
Internal Atmosphere   Competitive Collaborative
Management Style Bottom-line numbers focus “Values” “Mission”
Self-Image Streetfighters Team players
Leader Best hunter High priest
Decision Making Decentralized (autonomous) Coordinated (interdependent)

Law Firm Examples

Seattle-based Harris & Moure, the firm of ATL columnist Dan Harris, could be called a “Farmer” firm. Harris & Moure focuses on a few select practice areas to the exclusion of everything else, which they tout as a strength. Their areas of practice are limited to the following:

  • China Law
  • European Law
  • Intellectual Property Law
  • International Dispute Resolution
  • Corporate Law
  • Maritime Law

Lawyers at Harris & Moure likely work together to to foster relationships with their clients. Their practice areas naturally overlap and produce intra-firm referral opportunities.

In contrast, look at Wilson Sonsini, the Silicon Valley powerhouse. The firm has a reputation for a more “siloed” structure and entrepreneurial culture, where each partner and practice group must hunt for their own clients.

Know Thyself

Early in your career (law school would be even better), it’s important to determine which type you are: a hunter or a farmer. Some people are naturally entrepreneurial, self-sufficient, and excel at casting out on their own. They enjoy networking and socializing. They don’t mind forging their own paths. Other people work better in teams and thrive in collaborative environments, where they can contribute to work and perhaps let others take the lead. It’s going to be tough for you if you’re a farmer and go to work in a hunter-style firm. You will likely clash with the firm culture at a deep level. That’s not to say that you cannot adapt and change to the firm’s culture, just that you’re piling an additional difficult task onto your plate.

Take the time to know what type of person you are, and learn about the culture of the firms where you want to work. It can have a significant impact on whether or not you will enjoy your career.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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